Absolute liability is a tort derived from the British concept of strict liability, but with some changes. It does not give any exceptions to the defendant to save himself from the wrongful act, which is not the case in strict liability as it leaves room for the defendant to save himself by proving that the plaintiff was the wrongdoer, it was vis major (act of god), it was an act of third party or that there was consent.
The principle of absolute liability was established in India through the cases which are MC Mehta v UOI and Bhopal gas leakage case. The Hon. Supreme court of India modified rules laid down the case of Ryland v Fletcher by the House of lords making it fitting according to the Indian scenario.
Need to modify the 19th century Rule’
The Modern stand of Rule of Ryland v Fletcher
The rule of Strict Liability was reason to many exceptions hence practically very less rule was left. The old rule being subject to many exceptions was not capable of making any individual strictly liable for his negligence. Therefore it was deemed necessary to make a harder rule for the same purpose.
Indian judiciary’s View
By observing the need to modify the 19th century rule of Strict Liability the Supreme court of India in M.C. Mehta case said that “Moreover the principle so established in Ryland v Fletcher of strict liability cannot be used in the modern era, as the very principle was evolved in 19th century, and in the period when the industrial revolution in India has just begun, this two century old principle of tortuous liability cannot be taken as it is in the modern world without modifications”
Justice Bhagwati also stated that the rule of strict liability was evolved in 19th century, the time when industrial developments were at a primary stage, in today’s modern industrial era of the 21st century society where hazardous or inherently dangerous industries are required to carry out development programme, the this old rule cannot be held relevant in today’s context. Also, individuals cannot feel inhibited by this rule which was evolved in the context of totally different social and economic structure.The Division Bench of Andhra Pradesh High Court also in the case of K. Nagireddi v. Union Of India emphasized the need to alter the old principle and stated its view that “In India the general rule of Ryland v. Fletcher is accepted, though. the principle is needed to be modified in its application. to the Indian consideration”.
The term ‘Absolute Liability’, as misnomer.-
In his judgement, Blackburn ,the judge, referred to the liability as ‘absolute’. But the liability was in fact strict and in no way was it absolute. The rule in Rylands v. Fletcher was made subject to so many exceptions that in reality very little of the rule was left. The recent trend is to limit the scope of the rule, making the rule adjacent to the modern theory that there shall be no liability without a fault. In view of the given reasons, the term ‘absolute liability’ is misnomer and the appropriate term is ‘Strict Liability’
Why the old Rule was inappropriate in the Indian Perspective
High Industrialisation Growth
The Indian economy is developing economy. The Rule of strict liability is very archaic one. The Old Rule evaluates when there was low industrial development so the old rule cannot be found appropriate in a fastly growing economy like India.
Use Of Land For Agriculture
In India the land is majorly used for farming. Therefore it is suitable to store the water in huge tanks for the cause of irrigation. The same thing does not prevail in the country which decided the rule i.e England . Hence, it does not suit the Indian perspective.
Very old rule not suitable in the present world
The old rule was given in 19th century, which is more than 150 years ago, when the economical and social conditions were completely different. Therefore, it was needed to make rule according to the present requirement.
Difference Between Absolute Liability and Strict Liability
The difference between Strict and Absolute liability rules was laid down by the Supreme Court in the case of M.C.Mehta v. Union of India, where the court explains:-
Firstly, in Absolute Liability only those enterprises will be held liable who are involved in hazardous or inherently dangerous activities, which implies that other industries not falling in the said ambit would be covered under the rule of Strict liability.
Secondly, the escape of a dangerous thing from one’s own land is not considered an essential; meaning that the rule of absolute liability will be applicable to those who are injured within and outside the premise.
Thirdly, the rule of Absolute liability does not take into account the exceptions, whereas some exception are provided in the rule of Strict Liability. Also, in the case of Union of India v. Prabhakaran Vijay Kumar the constitutional bench was of the view that the rule of MC Mehta is cannot be subjected to any kind of exception.
Fourthly, the Rule of Ryland v. Fletcher can be applied only to non-natural use of land but the new rule of absolute liability can be applied to natural use of land also. If an individual uses a dangerous substance which can be natural use of land, but if such substance escapes, he would be held liable even though he had taken proper care.
Further, the extent of the damage provided depends on the financial capability of the institute and magnitude of the harm caused. The Supreme Court also contended that , the enterprise ought to held under an obligation to ensure that the inherently dangerous or hazardous activities in which they are engaged must be conducted with the highest mark of standards of safety and security, and if any harm occurs on account of such negligent activity, the enterprise/institute must be held absolutely liable to compensate for the damage caused and no opportunity is to be given to the enterprise to say that it had taken all reasonable care required and that the harm was caused without any negligence on their part.
Our Supreme Court found that in the modern times of science and technology the rule of Rylands v. Fletcher was not suitable.Hence, it was replaced by the rule of absolute liability.
Scope Of the New Rule of Absolute Liability
The extent of new rule is very wider in all terms than old rule.
- Do not have any exception
- Very wide scope.
- Cover not only public negligence or fault but cover even personal injuries caused due to the negligence of neighbour.
- Now cover not only the occupier of land but also non occupier of the land.
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 1987 SCR (1) 819 AIR (1989)(1)SCC 674: AIR 1992 SC 248  1866 L.R. 1 Ex.256. 1868 L.R. HL 330  AIR 1982 AP 119  St Anne’s well Browery v. Roberts. (1829) 141 LT at p.6, per Scrutton, L.J.  Ibid Dr. S.K.Kapoor.  2008) 9 SCC 527: (2008) 2 KLT 700.  Ratanlal & Dhirajlal : Law of Tort 26th edition pg 520  J.N. Panday : Law of Torts
Author: Dhatri Shukla (UPES, Dehradun)